[Ed. Note: Some lists chronicle the best in hockey. Others the worst. Others the most memorable or greatest or essential. What Puck Daddy’s 2016 Summer Series seeks to do is capture those indefinable, quirky, oddities that occur every season. Moments that defy prediction or, in some cases, logical explanation. Welcome to WEIRD NHL.]
1. Josh Harding breaks his foot after pre-season scuffle
This takes the top spot for sheer impact on the Wild franchise. Wild goalie Josh Harding was making his return in the 2014-15 season after symptoms of multiple sclerosis cut his previous year short. With an aging Niklas Backstrom backing Harding up, and young, untested net-minder Darcy Kuemper still mired in a bitter contract negotiation, keeping Harding healthy was critical to Minnesota’s success.
Harding didn’t make it out of the pre-season. Not because of his MS symptoms, but because he broke his foot.
Some details slowly came out, but what exactly happened is vague to this day. Here’s what we know: Harding got into an altercation with someone in practice. After the practice, Harding was angry enough to kick a wall.
Think about how weird that is. Two years later, in the age of Twitter, we still don’t know who jeopardized the Minnesota Wild’s season by getting in a fight with the starting goalie who has MS. Seriously- who does that?! This is vital information, and we’ll never know.
But the ripple effects of this injury are quite clear. This injury brought about the trade for Devan Dubnyk once Backstrom and Kuemper failed in the starter role. Dubnyk’s Vezina-worthy run resulted in a 6-year contract, which will likely be the cause of Kuemper leaving in free agency next summer. Perhaps the most improbable aspect of this incident is that Minnesota came out of it with long-term stability in net.
2. Wes Walz’ pants lift Wild to victory
Wes Walz’ career in Minnesota is a bit of an oddity in itself. A failed prospect who was out of the league at age 26, Walz spent four years playing overseas before the Wild gave him another shot at the NHL. Under the direction of Jacques Lemaire, his speed and defensive acumen made him a fixture in Minnesota’s lineup for their first 7 seasons. In fact, to this day, his 82 goals rank 7th in franchise history.
But none of those 82 goals were as strange as this one during a December 2006 game vs. the Columbus Blue Jackets. In overtime, Wes Walz was streaking towards the net, when Blue Jackets center Jason Chimera gave him a shove that sent him into a wide-open net. Next thing you know, Walz is in the net, the celebratory lights are on in the Xcel Energy Center, and the referee is furiously waiving off the goal that was somehow scored.
It’s buried deep in this grainy highlight video, but you can see the sequence of events unfold at 3:20.
The officials reviewed the non-goal to see just what had happened. Martin Skoula’s shot somehow got past Ty Conklin, then got lodged in the pant leg of Walz as he was falling into the net.
After a seven minute review, the no-goal call was overturned. Perhaps the officials thought the goal should negate the penalty. Or maybe they determined that indeed, Walz’ pants had completely crossed the goal line. Or, most likely, they realized they had a chance to go home and stop watching a game between two expansion franchises coached by Lemaire and Ken Hitchcock.
Whatever the reason, the goal stood, and Wes Walz was credited with the game-winner despite the fact his pants did all the heavy lifting.
3. 12 (Too Many) Days of Zoyle
Like every other aspect of their organization, Minnesota’s social media team has been committed to being boring and inoffensive. While it may not be as fun as, say, the LA Kings’ Twitter, it’s a viable strategy that usually avoids Tweets that only become more unintentionally hilarious with age.
But every now and then Minnesota tries to expand their Twitter brand beyond trivia questions and GIFs of their mascot dancing. One such instance was in December 2014, when they rolled out the 12 Days of Zoyle.
The 12 Days of Zoyle was a series of 12 awkward photos – the kind your mom may have forced you to take with a sibling in your youth – celebrating the fictional holiday “Zoyle,” which is exactly like Christmas, except they didn’t just call it Christmas.
“Zoyle” of course comes from a combination of Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker (who are in each picture), and no, nobody actually has ever called them that. My auto-correct refuses to accept that it’s a word, and I’ve never been prouder of it.
The weirdest thing about this is that Zucker is one of the few openly practicing Jewish players in the league, but there’s absolutely no sign of any reference to his heritage. Which isn’t to say that Christmas shouldn’t be inclusive, or that Zucker himself had an issue with partaking in Zoyle. But with Hanukkah overlapping with the 12 Days of Zoyle, it’s strange that no one on Minnesota’s staff thought to do anything other than pose their only Jewish player exclusively with Christmas paraphernalia.
Mercifully, Zoyle appears to be a one-off, as it wasn’t reprised last December. Thank whichever deities represent your heritage.
4. The Stanchion
This isn’t weird in the sense that it’s something unique that would never happen again, but it is, by far, the most significant weird bounce in franchise history. In the 2014 playoffs, Minnesota took a juggernaut Chicago Blackhawks team to Game 6. And this wasn’t fueled by goaltending- Minnesota played Chicago extremely well, despite having to resort to journeyman Ilya Bryzgalov in net.
The dream that the Wild could advance to the Western Conference Final was alive, until this odd bounce in Overtime of Game 6.
Brent Seabrook dumped the puck into the Wild’s zone from the red line, a normal play that typically doesn’t result in a scoring chance. But while defenseman Jonas Brodin went to the other side of the ice to retrieve the dump-in along the boards, the puck hit a stanchion and bounced in the opposite direction, landing in front of Bryzgalov. The puck lands on the stick of Patrick Kane, and with nothing between him and Bryzgalov, Kane scored the Game-Winner, ending the series.
Now, weird bounces are part of the game, and even if Minnesota had won that game, they’d have to win a Game 7 at the United Center, which is a tall order. Still, losing that pivotal game on such a fluky play was a big gut-punch for the State of Hockey, and it remains the Wild’s most disappointing playoff loss.
Fortunately, this spurred Minnesota to go out and sign Thomas Vanek in free agency, and all their problems were solved.
5. Mike Yeo gets fired by a rabbit
For years, coach Mike Yeo was impervious to getting fired. Each season, a losing streak would push his job security to the very brink, but general manager Chuck Fletcher and owner Craig Leipold remained committed to stability.
On February 9th, 2016, a rabbit named ‘Hoppy’ posted this Tweet.
Five days later, Yeo was ousted as coach.
While the official line is the decision was made by Fletcher and Leipold, their previous reluctance to fire Yeo and the timing of their sudden change of heart is suspicious. One can only conclude that it was Hoppy who was pulling the strings here.
Hoppy’s owner, Zenon Konopka, signed with the Wild in the 2012 offseason. Konopka didn’t flourish under Yeo and was waived in January 2014. Konopka floundered in Buffalo, was suspended for PED use, and hasn’t been in the league since.
In just a few short months, Hoppy went from living the good life to eating non-organic carrots and celery. Consumed by a thirst for revenge, Hoppy waited over two years for the perfect opportunity to jump on. He finally found it as the Wild were mired in a death spiral, losing 13 of 14 games to exit playoff contention. Hoppy Tweeted the final blow to Yeo’s Minnesota career, knowing that Fletcher and Leipold would not be able to resist the combination of fan pressure and THAT ADORABLE FACE!!!!!
As far as I could tell after literally minutes of research, this is the only time in professional sports history that a rabbit got a coach fired. A historic and weird event, indeed.
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About the author: Tony Abbott writes about the Minnesota Wild for Hockey Wilderness and Today’s Slapshot. In his free time he writes sketch comedy, gives scratches to his dog, Topher, and aspires to be a Pokemon Master. Follow him on Twitter: @OhHiTony.